Asymmetrical Federalism and Conflict Management in Cyprus

Gülay Umaner-Duba


Gülay Umaner-Duba is a Lecturer at the Middle East Technical University Northern Cyprus Campus. She earned her Ph.D. in Politics and Government at the University of Kent. Her research interests include federalism, ethnic conflicts, secessionist movements, national minorities, the Cyprus conflict and Spanish/Catalan politics.


This paper discusses the institutional and normative theory of asymmetrical federalism as it relates to the management of ethnonational diversity in Cyprus, highlighting the need for multinational federalism to accommodate common as well as distinct identities in Cyprus. It is argued that multinational federalism necessitates constitutional asymmetry and that the better adaptation of asymmetric federalism to regulate federal institutions in Cyprus depends on the promotion of a broader understanding of the concepts of “federal separateness” and “federal togetherness.”



The term “asymmetry” has been adopted as a purposeful tool to address imbalance and inequality in multinational federal states as well as diversity, and to control the dissatisfaction of certain entities within a federal unit where such imbalances are quite prominent (Bhattacharjee 2016). The main purpose of this paper, using Cyprus as a case study, is to analyse whether asymmetrical federalism can manage conflicts and achieve stability in multinational contexts through recognizing and accommodating the distinctive nationalist claims of substate nations. In light of that purpose, the paper touches upon two issues: First, adopting a symmetrical model in a society like Cyprus, which is asymmetrical from a national perspective, is not likely to accommodate national minorities. Federal systems change the nature of democracy in multinational contexts and therefore equality and justice as fundamental democratic values must be re-evaluated in contexts of pluralism. Second, contemporary multinational federal theories and asymmetric federal theory emphasise the importance of a highly decentralised model of federal systems (separateness) which tends to ignore an equally important aspect of federalism, that is togetherness. Togetherness is  is very limited in scope, which may lead to the justification of secession as a natural option. Thus, there is a need to reconceptualize asymmetrical federalism in multinational contexts and then restructure multinational federalism while stressing the importance of “togetherness” in order to achieve accommodation.


                         Map of Cyprus with UN buffer zone. Source:


Asymmetrical Federalism as a Functional and Normative Concept

Asymmetrical federalism as a functional concept refers to differences in status, distribution of competences, and fiscal power. It has emerged as one of the most popular and defensible ways of recognizing and accommodating substate nations within multinational states, as illustrated in Canada, Belgium, Spain, Russia, and India (Housing 1999). Substate nations are granted different constitutional statuses and powers as a means of recognizing their distinctiveness and extending “self-rule” within the framework of “shared rule.” For example, this might entail the representation of subnational entities in the upper chamber with some type of uneven voting rights in central institutions, such as a special minority veto (Agranoff 1999). Fiscal autonomy and different legislative competences are another example where some subnational units are allocated more power than others (e.g., opt-out). These institutional designs aim to recognize the fact that strict symmetry does not always create a situation that is equal in terms of giving all constituent units the same capacities.

Asymmetrical federalism as a normative concept used by diverse societies for different reasons reflects specific values, beliefs, and interests. Gagnon (2010), Kymlicka (2002), Norman (2006), and Requejo (2005) address the links between the normative values of equality, liberty, and democratic participation and the values of communal identity, self-determination of minority nations, and the right of recognition. Forging communities, addressing inequalities, and enhancing democratic principles (Gagnon 2001; Kymlicka 1995) are among the normative justifications for asymmetrical federalism (Gagnon 2010). “Forging communities” derives from the importance of communities in social life and asymmetrical federalism promotes what is “good and valuable in the society” (Gagnon and Gibbs 1999). “Addressing inequalities” extends the concept of equality from a restrictive understanding of “equal treatment” to the broader “equality of opportunity” (Gagnon 2010). Asymmetrical federalism is not an instrument of strict equality but of equity. “Enhancing democratic citizenship” strengthens democratic systems by encouraging public participation in decision-making processes, accommodating differences between political communities, and strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the federal state.

The normative basis of the democratic state shifts from focusing on individual rights to group rights, with equality becoming a “right to diversity” and liberty being conceptualized as “freedom to choose a culture with which to identify.” As Requejo (2005: 312) argues, “to equate national minority communities with mere regions, or to treat them exactly the same as federal subunits that are controlled by members of the national majority, is intrinsically inegalitarian, both in substantive and procedural terms.”

For a proper functionality of asymmetrical federalism, there is a need to reconceptualize the federal values of “togetherness” and “separateness.” “Why is a federal state preferable to secession?” or “Why stay together?” have been important questions that should offer a normative ground for multinational states. Jewkes (2015) explains that the distinctive feature of federal togetherness, and of federalism itself, is the requirement of being “united in difference,” or coming together as one political unit while recognizing and representing the distinctiveness of groups. Federal togetherness is needed to facilitate successful inter-group cooperation and congenial relations in multinational states.


Asymmetrical Federalism for Cyprus: Strengths and Limits

Since 1974, Cyprus has been de facto divided between two communities, the Greek Cypriots (GCs), who constitute 76% of the population and live in the southern two-thirds of the island, and the Turkish Cypriots (TCs), who make up 19% of the population and live in the north. Both communities experienced a short-lived power-sharing constitution (1960-1963) under the Republic of Cyprus, which resulted in inter-communal violence, leading to a Greek-inspired coup d’état, a Turkish military intervention, forced population transfers, and the de facto division of Cyprus.

Since the late 1970s, the UN has promoted negotiations with the aim of reuniting Cyprus as a bicommunal, bizonal federation based on symmetry, but they have failed to mediate sustainable settlements. Thus, new ideas are needed, including asymmetrical federalism. The level of institutional asymmetry was taken into account in the UN proposals at the federal level. For example, the latest comprehensive constitutional proposal, called the Annan Plan (2004), as well as the 1960 Constitution acknowledged group rights beyond the common individual rights of citizenship, including TC over-representation, veto in some institutions, and a rotational presidency to accommodate fears of GC domination and the overall functionality of the plan. However, asymmetrical design has been neglected at the regional level. According to Article 2 of the Annan Plan[i], the constituent states have equal (symmetrical) status, distribution of competences, and fiscal power. Asymmetrical autonomy would have clear limits to how far a state can pursue asymmetrical arrangements with two communities and two regions while still remaining a state. Adopting asymmetrical federalism in Cyprus, however, can help to manage the core lines of disputes including equality and rights, which are also at the core of asymmetrical federalism in spite of its limitations, and these can be accommodated through the introduction of various mechanisms.

Concerning the issue of equality versus equity, the GC leadership has seemed to accept federalism as a compact between two territorial units, whereas the TC leadership considers federalism a compact between two founding peoples. Symmetrical autonomy, based on nations, has been sought by TCs because it emphasizes the “equality of nations.”  However, symmetrical autonomy in this context may present some difficulties. The TC leadership’s commitment to provincial equality, implied sameness, or symmetry disregards the fact that provinces might have special needs. “True equality requires not identical treatment, but rather a differentiated treatment to accommodate differential needs” (Kymlicka 1995: 113). The degree of autonomy involved might not provide what the TCs seek and might not address their desires for symbolic constitutional recognition of their national claims. Even if these arrangements allow collective self-governing in their respective region, TCs would struggle with institutional arrangements that place their territory on an equal footing with mere regional subcomponents of the majority nation. Moreover, the positioning of national, uniform standards on the culturally, religiously, and linguistically distinct TC community and province, as proposed by the GC leadership for the sake of unity, efficiency, and the workability of the system (Palley 2007), is likely to limit the asymmetrical model. Constitutional asymmetry is not so much about citizens getting more power as it is about where they exercise that power (Webber 1994). For example, tax points might be allocated to the TC constituent state as compensation for opting out to develop some of its own plans in certain areas where national programmes are instituted. Thus, both leaderships may realize the importance of equity rather than strict equality in division of powers (Umaner-Duba 2020). This will give the TC constituent state more competences to exercise power and accommodate their demand for a loose federation, whereas it will give GCs competences to exercise power at the federal level, thus accommodating their desires for centralized federalism and “their stronger commitment to the efficiency of the system as a whole” (McGarry 2013).

The issue of collective rights versus individual rights is another point of tension in the Cyprus problem. Whereas the GC community stresses individual rights in negotiations, the TC community emphasizes group rights (Tarr 2003). All these discussions reflect the problem of bizonality and bicommunity, which initiates a debate on freedom of settlement and property issues. Since 1974, the GC community has insisted on the rights of freedom of movement, freedom of settlement, and freedom to property over the whole island as important elements of any solution (ibid.). From the TC perspective, however, such an unlimited right would create serious difficulties due to the disparities in population and wealth between the two communities. Additionally, when speaking of two founding/equal communities, what TCs desire is that the right to national self-determination, to be free of domination by a political majority and that their cultural autonomy is promoted by a significant degree of political-regional autonomy (Rothschild 1981). When it comes to the practice of asymmetry, collective rights could be considered inherently unequal, as they prefer group interests over individual rights (Webber 1994) and treat provinces differently. According to GCs, the collective rights of the TC community would come to take precedence over the individual right of free movement, settlement, and property ownership, which has been endorsed by the international community (Tarr 2003), and this would harm unity and democracy. However, enabling TCs to govern themselves responsibly according to their own culture does not mean that individuals’ rights are sacrificed for some collective interest; instead, individuals live under laws that are more compatible with their understanding of the world (Webber 1994). The Cyprus negotiations have already shown that individual and collective rights need to be balanced. For example, the sovereignty of the two ethnonational communities has its own limitations, which put restrictions on its meaning: it demonstrates a dynamic bizonality with limited right of return, rather than monolithic bizonality.

Political equality refers to a situation where neither of the constituent states would be able to dominate the other (Koumoullis 2019) and where the TC community would enjoy effective participation. Both sides agree that the settlement will be based on “political equality,” as set out in relevant Security Council resolutions. However, representation of a nationality-based unit in the federal government further reduces the applicability of asymmetry when representatives of an asymmetrically autonomous region in the common legislature are able to vote on matters that do not concern their region, while other legislators have no say on matters within the autonomous region. There is difficulty in reducing the number of representatives from the TC constituent state in the common legislature. The common legislature, under asymmetrical arrangements, will still be responsible for some state-wide policies, and citizens from the TC constituent state will be entitled to equitable representation in these matters. Asymmetrical decentralization of powers without representation and protection at the federal level will not be enough (Adeney 2007) to accommodate plurality because an asymmetrical distribution of powers cannot eliminate the majoritarian nature of federal systems. Designing a system where the asymmetrically autonomous TC region would remain equitably and effectively represented at the central level, abstaining from only the decision-making beyond their competences at the federal level, could address the democratic dilemmas associated with asymmetry. This arrangement would be likely to accommodate the GC demand for effective and efficient decision-making at the federal level.

This paper proposes several mechanisms to reach asymmetrical outcomes in Cyprus. First of all, a piecemeal/incremental approach of a federal process must be considered. The repeatedly failed negotiations in Cyprus illustrate the difficulty of accomplishing a “comprehensive solution.” However, adopting an incremental/piecemeal approach to negotiation—dividing each issue into stages—will defer controversial decisions on foundational issues to the future, where asymmetrical federalism will eventually be likely to emerge in these processes. The periodic and continuing renegotiations between TCs, aspiring to self-determination and effective participation, and GCs, focusing on state sovereignty, is an important way in which an asymmetrical model can be attained. The reason is that the a desire for federal union based upon voluntary agreement does not seem possible under the current conditions in Cyprus.

Secondly, asymmetrical federalism needs to be considered in tandem with effective power-sharing. The effective participation of communities in federal institutions is secured in the Annan Plan through a consociational model, which would deviate from the “one person, one vote” principle of representation to recognize the TC minority as a majority in its federal subunit. However, the norm of “togetherness” can be easily undermined through consociation because of the fact that this model involves strict ethnic representation, found in all constitutional proposals as well as in the 1960 Constitution. The weaknesses of this model might be addressed by introducing centripetal mechanisms for consociationalism to foster cooperation across ethnic lines and to ensure a common/overarching identity and moderation between the two communities. The rotation of the office of the president involves bicommunality and political equality, but establishing a common political forum for the two electoral constituencies would provide each the chance to influence the outcome of the elections in the other community. This model, in return, will be likely to address GC worries regarding the effective participation of TCs.

Thirdly, this paper suggests the continuation of bizonality with a new approach: the implementation of regions within zones, which will create two constituent entities (bizonality) with ethnically homogeneous and ethnically heterogeneous multiple subunits. Asymmetrical federalism is likely to work better if there are two zones with multiple regions in each zone. Each subunit would be entitled to asymmetrical power and increasing roles at the local level with power-sharing at the municipal level. This arrangement could balance the competing interests of both communities in relation to territorial and property issues: whereas TCs could form a clear majority in their region, GCs could see property rights being reinstated in heterogeneous subunits of the TC constituent state.



This paper suggests that we require a better understanding of the needs, causes, and consequences of asymmetrical federalism in multinational contexts.  Multinational federalism maintains a “federation of nationalities” rather than simply a “federation of provinces.” A system that favours regionalism/provincialism does not fit with the reality of a multinational Cyprus. Consequently, asymmetrical federalism is promoted to deal with multinational diversity on the grounds that national minorities may need certain political tools to ensure their development.


Umaner-Duba, G. 2021. ‘Asymmetrical Federalism and Conflict Management in Cyprus’, 50 Shades of Federalism



Adeney, Katharine. 2007. “Comment: The “Necessity” of Asymmetrical Federalism?” Ethnopolitics 6(1): 117-120.

Agranoff, Robert. 1999. Accommodating Diversity: Asymmetry in Federal States. Baden-Baden:Nomos.

Bhattacharjee, Govind. 2016. Special Category states of India. Oxford University Press.

Gagnon, Alain-G. 2001. “The Moral Foundations of Asymmetrical Federalism.” In Multinational Democracies, edited by Gagnon, Alain-G. and Tully, James, 319–337. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gagnon, A-G. 2010. The Case for Multinational Federalism Beyond the All-encompassing Nation. London: Routledge.

Jewkes, Michael. 2015. “Theorising federal togetherness in multinational states.” Ethnicities 15(3): 323-340.

Koumoullis, George. 2019. “The cost of deriding political equality”, Cyprus Mail, January 13.

Kymlicka, Will. 2002. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Kymlicka, Will. 1995. Multicultural Citizenship and Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. Oxford University Press.

McGarry, John. 2013. “Designing a Durable Federation: The Case of Cyprus.” In The Global Promise of Federalism, edited by Skogstad, Grace et al., 99–138. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McGarry, John. 2015.“Consociational Theory, Self-Determination Disputes and Territorial Pluralism: The case of Cyprus.” In Territorial Pluralism: Managing Difference in Multinational States edited by Karlo Basta, John McGarry and Richard Simeon. 265-292. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Norman, Wayne. 2006. Negotiating Nationalism: Nation-building, Federalism, and Secession in the Multinational State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Palley, Claire, consultant to Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Cyprus, Personal interview, 28 August 2007.

Requejo, Ferran. 2005. “Federalism in Plurinational Societies.” In Theories of Federalism: A Reader edited by D. Karmis and W. Norman. New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2005.

Rothschild, Joseph. 1981. Ethnopolitics: A Conceptual Framework. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tarr, Allan. 2003. “Cyprus and the Clash of Rights”. Indian Journal of Federal Studies 6.

Umaner-Duba, Gülay. 2021. “Managing Ethno-National Diversity in Cyprus: Asymmetrical Federalism”.   Nationalities Papers 49 (1): 180 – 198.

Webber, Jeremy. 1994. Reimagining Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.


Further Reading

Karmis, Dimitrios. 2010. “Togetherness in Multinational Federal Democracies.” In Federal Democracies, edited by Michael Burgess and Alain-G. Gagnon, 46–63. London: Routledge.

Loizides, Neophytos. 2016. Designing Peace: Cyprus and Institutional Innovations in  Divided Societies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Michael,  Michalis S. and Vural, Yücel. 2018. Cyprus and the Roadmap for Peace: A Critical Interrogation of the Conflict. Cheltenham: Elgar.

Popelier, Patricia and Maja Sahadzic. 2019. Constitutional Asymmetry in Multinational Federalism. Cham, Switzerland : Palgrave Macmillan.

Leave a Reply